A Mother Never Dies

I quite enjoyed this film for a while, though its tendentious qualities eventually sink it good and proper. Takako Irie, in her final Naruse role, plays a young wife and mother whose premature death serves as eternal inspiration for her husband Sugai (Ichiro Sugai) and son Shugo (Hideo Saito). The story creates expectations of crippling sentimentality, but Naruse easily keeps that danger in check. From the film’s first scene –a slow lateral tracking shot of a busy office disassembling itself after the company’s failure, dominated by the sounds of papers rustling and shuffling of feet – Naruse and writer Katsuhito Inomata (adapting from a novel by Sensuke Kawauchi) choose an ambient, stoical perspective on the emotional swings of the story. The living room of the couple’s house is photographed primarily in tranquil Fordian long shots with the changing seasons visible through windows; family life is abstracted into a series of quiet tableaux, like the return of the recently laid-off Sugai from a drinking session with his former co-workers, his wife bringing him a glass of water which he drinks while sitting unsteadily on the floor. The progression of the wife’s illness imparts a chill to the otherwise uninflected long-shot visual scheme, and the camera finally retreats to a discreetly Lubitschian position outside the house for the inevitable conclusion of her story.

After the wife’s passing, the script’s new focus on Sugai’s child-rearing techniques opens the door to propaganda, and the film ultimately stands revealed as an exhortation to parents to make their children into good Japanese citizens. (Sugai’s draconian crackdown on any hint of sexual self-expression in his son perhaps gives some insight into why Japan’s post-war Allied occupiers felt the need to commission films like Naruse’s 1947 SPRING’S AWAKENING, which encouraged a gentler touch in dealing with child sexuality.) The wife’s didactic death-bed letter to her family is featured prominently and repeatedly in the film’s second half, and Sugai’s hectoring patriotic lectures to Shugo and to the world at large soon become hard to endure. But Naruse never quite gives up when saddled with horribly uncongenial material, and distinctive Naruse elements (like Shugo’s sullen passivity when confronted with parental authority) crop up even in the worst scenes. Ichiro Sugai, later a fixture in Mizoguchi’s 50s work, is an appealingly contained performer who carries the film with no visible effort.

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